A feudal horn
They were playing Blood on the Tracks in the shop I wandered into yesterday. “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” was halfway through: a song that always lightens my step. The choice of music in shops is an underrated business and although I didn’t really want to buy anything, their sound system was good enough to make me stick around to listen to some more of Bob. Two songs later it was “Shelter from the Storm”, with that quietly impassioned vocal set against the strumming acoustic guitars and the halved-time bass guitar.
An hour later I was in a restaurant, having lunch with a friend who loves Dylan as much as I do, and I mentioned that I was always amused by a line in the seventh verse: “And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a feudal horn…” No, no, she said. That’s not it. It’s funeral horn. Undertaker. Funeral horn. Get it? Well, I said, I’d always thought it might be flugelhorn, with a slightly mangled pronunciation, but “funeral horn” sounded too literal, particularly for Bob. So she got out her smartphone and went on to bobdylan.com and discovered just here that the official version is “futile horn”.
Not for me it isn’t, and nor will it ever be. Do we really imagine, I said to my friend, that Bob Dylan transcribes his own lyrics? That’s just some devoted functionary getting it wrong. In fact there’s an entire website devoted to mishearings of Dylan lyrics (find it here) and sure enough someone agrees with me on the matter of the one-eyed undertaker’s “feudal horn”. (Someone else also thinks it might be “flugelhorn”; there appears to be no recorded corroboration of my friend’s “funeral horn”. Only Dylan could be the subject of four conflicting versions of a single word.) To settle the matter, take a listen to the driving version on Hard Rain, from the Rolling Thunder tour in 1976: the vocal is very clear, and that’s a “d”, not a “t”. And I know exactly what a feudal horn sounds like, even though I’ve never heard one. So does Bob.
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My son, 15, a keen Bob fan and a singer, tells me, against your feeling, that he always heard it as “futile horn” and that t’s and d’s are tricky to separate singing. “Futile” is perfectly logical and poetic in fact but lacks the surreal, unexpected but right quality of “feudal”. That has Maurice Sendak echoes. It’s true though that most Bob lyrics must be transcribed by someone not necessarily familiar with wider Bob. Have you ever seen the words to Tell Me Mama, which make no sense at all and bear no relation to what was sung most nights as the electric opener in the 1966 tour.
I’ve been singing it in my living room for around 35 years as “feudal horn,” without having sought the lyrics in my original effort. I remember finding lyrics later and saying, “What the!!!” But always stuck to feudal. When ever I run into memory or interpretation problems on Dylan songs that I sing, I always say to myself, “Well, it doesn’t really matter – first of all much of it is a sound painting and not a literal statement, second, few people know what any of it means in literal terms, and third, Dylan himself DOES change the lyrics around as he sees fit – to say nothing of the melodies…. The beauty is that there are so few songwriters today with whom one CAN take this approach….
Sometimes I hear ‘fugal horn’… Do we know if Dylan has read ‘Finnegans Wake’?
“Do I understand your question, Man, is it hopeless and forlorn…” probably, if my vox pop is anything to go by. I have one Fugal, one Futile and one Feudal. I’m with Richard, I’ve always sung Feudal in my head. Now it’s back to the Hard Rain DVD to watch Bob sing it…
So it is “futile”. But then, as Woody Allen might say, isn’t everything?
Wait, so for one futile and feudal are homonyms so he could easily mean both. But what I’m confused with is how it’s not clear that futile is ultimately the best answer? “Nothing really matters much, It’s doom alone that counts” is the line right before that. The definition of Futile is, “Incapable of producing results; useless; not successful; not worth attempting.” Fugal horn is clever and is something that does make sense in terms of an image but to me it seems too random in context with the rest of the line. And feudal would mean a old fashioned class system based on farming and owning land.
I agree, it’s clearly feudal horn. Also, it’s. “Do I understand your question, then, …” Not “your question, man,…”
So glad I’m not the only one!
What does a “futile” horn sound like, anyway — one hand clapping?
They gambled for the robe of Jesus at his crucifixion. If this is Jesus, who is resurrected after death, then the undertakers horn is futile. He lives forever. Maybe? I sue wish Mr. Dylan would clear this, and a lot of other things up for us troubador wannabes.
Ah. Feudal horn. Like the Tutbury horn, used to summon coroners.
Thank you. Never in a million years is it “futile.”
I agree with you. It is feudal horn.
It’s Dylan….the word is whatever you want it to be.
Yes I’ve always heard it as feudal horn too.
Blood on the Tracks is THE Dylan album for us Seventies kids……too young for the amazing mid sixties trilogy, the first great Dylan album since John Wesley Harding…even if I had no experience of the kind of relationship fallout underpinning it, the feeling was there and as life proceeded I experienced some of those feelings all too keenly! But Bob had been there and I often turned to his wisdom and eloquence in those times. Had girlfriends who could sing the familiar songs along with me………so yeah I know what a feudal horn is